At the park: 11

I got some good information at the public meeting on September 21 on the planned wetland restoration project at Huntley Meadows Park. We heard from Park Manager Kevin Munroe, FCPA staff naturalist Charles Smith, and Park Resource Manager Dave Lawlor.

The central wetland at the Park constitutes the only large, non-tidal wetland in Fairfax County. (Tidal wetlands can be found along the Potomac in places like Dyke Marsh.) A number of factors—siltation from runoff from housing construction in the 80s and 90s, drought, and the migration of the beavers once they had consumed the desirable trees—has meant that the wetland is going through its natural succession to wet meadow on its way to becoming woods. Along the way, the ecology of the wetland has simplified, with the near-disappearance of crayfish (a foundation species in the food web); the dominance of native but aggressive cattails and rice cutgrass; and the loss of standing dead trees (whose presence supports a variety of species). A consultant’s report in 1993 indicated that, to preserve the freshwater marsh more or less as it was then, as an island of diversity in burgeoning suburbia, water level management would be needed, eventually. Eventually is now.

The new dam across Barnyard Run and its accompanying water control structures will raise water levels as much as two feet. The high-water mark will be 33 feet above sea level. In addition, plans (as yet unfunded) call for four pools to be excavated to a depth of three feet (which means a maximum water depth of five feet), which will enhance habitat diversity. Munroe and staff made it clear that water levels on the wetland will follow the healthy natural cycles within the year (drawdowns in summer, recharging in winter) and across years.

There will be downsides, both short- and long-term. Munroe stressed that the racket of chainsaws and bulldozers will be part of the park experience when construction begins after the 2008 breeding season, next July (per plan). There may be some preliminary work and tree removal as early as November. The expectation is that excavated trees and soil remain inside the park, to be used as habitat. Long-term, the state-mandated access road to the dam will link up the trails leading in from the two entrances of the park (South Kings Highway and Lockheed Boulevard). This historical gap was by design, in order to discourage mischief-makers and joy-riders. Munroe has mitigation plans; I rather like his idea of a fence and stile as a barrier to bikes.

It’s a big, disruptive project, and I suppose that it has to be done. $2 million isn’t a lot of money to preserve a really special place in the county. Munroe seems to be on the ball and he’s doing a great job of citizen outreach.